For Native American tribes in Louisiana, Ida is an uphill battle

Driving through her village in southeastern Terrebonne Parish, tribal leader Cherie Matherne points out that remnants of house after house – including her own – were destroyed nearly 10 months ago when Hurricane Ida struck. roared in the community of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe.

Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and travel campers sit next to pilings that raise homes 14 feet off the ground to protect them from flooding. But the wind got them this time. For hours, the Category 4 hurricane tore away roofs and siding, ripped insulation and strewn valuable possessions.

“It will be years before people can get their lives back. The majority of people are still at a standstill,” said Matherne, the tribe’s cultural heritage and resilience coordinator.

When Ida swept through southeast Louisiana on August 29, it slammed into an area home to many Native American tribes, striking people who were already struggling to overcome decades of coastal erosion and the long shadow of discrimination. With the start of a new hurricane season expected to be as busy as the last, tribal leaders fear their people may once again be in the crosshairs.

“Ida was the worst storm we’ve ever had in our area,” United Houma Nation leader August Creppel said. The roughly 19,000 tribesmen are spread across the Louisiana coast, about 11,000 of whom suffered damage from Ida, according to Creppel.

“Some of our fellow citizens don’t even have a home to return to,” he said.

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Other tribes were also hammered. Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, said only a dozen homes in the lower part of the Pointe-aux-Chênes community survived the storm.

Further west, where many of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw live, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar said everyone suffered damage, with about 20% of homes lost. total, even his own.

Native Americans lived in the bayou regions of southeast Louisiana long before French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1682. Historically, they have been intimately connected to the land and to the water there. Many earn their living by fishing for shrimp or crabbing in marshes and estuaries; their parents and grandparents trapped muskrats or nutria.

Eroded land, eroded culture

Irene Verdin walks through her house damaged by Ida on May 24, 2022 in Pointe-aux-Chênes.

But decades of development have eroded this land beneath them. Levees built to keep the Mississippi River from flooding have deprived coastal Louisiana of the fresh sediment it needs to rebuild the land; canals dug to facilitate oil and gas development or shipping allowed salt water to encroach further inland.

This means that the buffer zones of marsh land, trees and grasses that once protected Native American communities from storms in the Gulf have shrunk even as climate change portends a future of stronger, wetter storms.

Lester Naquin’s father, a trapper, took his son crab and shrimp fishing. Naquin remembers when there was so much land his family raised cattle behind their home in Pointe-aux-Chênes. Now, he says, if you go over the seawall to fish, you’ll catch speckled trout, a saltwater species.

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Naquin, 70, loves the bayou. That’s why he decided to come back even after Ida destroyed the house he shared with his extended family. With money and materials from FEMA and contractors paid for by charity, he was one of the few to rebuild in the area.

He still lives in a FEMA-provided trailer while the house is completed, but it’s lonely for a man who lived with multiple generations. And he doesn’t know how many of his family members will return. The shell of his nephew’s house still stands next to it. But that’s where Naquin grew up, where his memories are.

“As long as I can stay here, I will,” he said.

“We are a people who adapt”

Louise Billiot, left, a member of the United Houma Nation, walks to her friend and tribal member Irene Verdin, May 24, 2022, in Pointe-aux-Chênes.  Irene's home was severely damaged by Hurricane Ida, which made landfall near Cocodrie on August 29, 2021.

Decades of discrimination against natives reverberate today in ways that affect their ability to prepare for and recover from hurricanes, tribal officials say.

Discrimination limited where they could go to school, and when they were allowed to go to school, many were harassed. Louise Billiot, a United Houma Nation tribal leader who helps people get vocational training, said she could see the ripple effects of this lack of education among tribal elders who find it difficult to use computers or mobile phones to lodge complaints or follow up on their appeals.

The tribes most affected by Ida had no federal recognition, although they were in a decades-long process to seek it. Tribal officials say federal recognition would give them greater access to funding for more hurricane-resistant homes and programs to help improve members’ lives before storms hit.

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After the storms, federal recognition would allow them to work directly with the federal government, tribal officials say. When the Seminole Tribe of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the federally recognized tribe requested and received an emergency declaration from then-President Donald Trump to help respond to its needs.

Parfait-Dardar said the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is looking for ways for residents to rebuild homes that are stronger than before. “We are an adaptive people, we always have been,” she said. But she fears that tribesmen who cannot afford to rebuild will be forced to relocate.

Will they rebuild?

Lester Naquin clears room to sit on the porch of his home in Pointe-aux-Chênes on May 24, 2022. The house was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ida nine months earlier.

Rebuilding can also be an exhausting process, especially for older tribal members.

Irene Verdin, 67, a member of the United Houma Nation who lives in the Pointe-aux-Chênes area, lives in a FEMA trailer next to the remains of her home, where memories still lie on the ground. His roof is long gone – somewhere in the swamps behind his house.

She is the primary caretaker for her sister-in-law, who has had two strokes. And Verdin’s 73-year-old husband, who worked on boats, had a heart attack this year. Since the storm, his own blood pressure has been climbing.

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Deciding what to do is almost paralyzing. She would like to rebuild, but it’s hard to get an estimate from a contractor, let alone find a way to pay for the construction. Verdin said she sometimes feels like those who live in the bayou are forgotten.

“It’s still up in my head. It’s still up in the air as to what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s hard.”

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